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Why Do I Cough at Night?

Coughing can be an annoying— and even painful —thing that our body does. You can experience a persistent cough throughout the day when you’re going about your day to day life. Just like coughing can interrupt your daily productivity, it can also interrupt your good night’s sleep. Keep reading to find out why you cough at night, how to relieve your nighttime cough and what you can do to lessen your persistent coughing in general.

Woman coughing while she’s laying down at night

What Is a Cough?

Coughing is a reflex your body uses to rid your throat of irritants.1 When one of those irritants stimulates the nerves in your throat or airways, the nerves send a message to your brain. The brain tells your chest and abdomen to have your lungs push the irritant out of the affected area.1 When you cough, your body pushes air out of your lungs and through your throat to clear out germs, mucus, and dust.2 In cases like these, coughing from time to time is normal and healthy.

While there are many different types of coughs, a few common examples are:2

  • Acute cough
    An acute cough is usually the least serious type. It can last up to three weeks, and it typically relieves itself.
  • Chronic cough
    A chronic cough is a more serious type. It can last longer than eight weeks, and it might be a sign of a more serious health concern.
  • Productive cough
    A productive cough is a type that includes mucus or phlegm coming up your throat. Depending on the color of the mucus or phlegm and if blood is present, it can be a sign of a bigger health issue.
  • Dry cough
    A dry cough is also known as a nonproductive type. This happens when you cough, but mucus doesn’t come up your throat.

The type of cough you experience can change depending upon any other symptoms you have. It can also change based on the weather, your diet, your daily habits and your nighttime activity.

Causes of Coughing When Lying Down

An occasional cough throughout the day can turn into a persistent cough right when you’re trying to go to sleep. There are some environmental causes and health causes for a common cough.

A few causes of the common cough that last less than two months are:2

  • Irritants like germs, dust, fumes and vapors
  • Hay fever
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Heart failure
  • Asthma
  • Tobacco smoke

Some things in your control, like smoking, and things outside of your control, like the time of day, can worsen your cough. You might notice that your occasional daytime coughing gets more persistent at night when you lie down for bed. There are some common causes of why you might cough at night. Some of these causes are:

  • Post-nasal drip3
    Post-nasal drip is usually caused by allergies, viral infections, sinus issues, and irritants. It happens when mucus drips from the back of your nose and gathers in your throat.4 It is one of the most common causes of a persistent cough.5
  • Acid reflux3
    Acid reflux happens when your stomach contents come back up into your esophagus.6 Nighttime acid reflux can cause you to have a chronic cough while you’re lying down.7
  • Gravity
    When you lie down at night, you don’t have the same level of gravity that you have when you stand throughout the day.3 Lying down can increase your risk of acid reflux and post-nasal drip, and those factors can cause a persistent nighttime cough.

    You should consult with your healthcare provider if your cough doesn’t go away after a few weeks or if your cough:9

    • Produces a thick, greenish-yellow phlegm
    • Produces blood or a pink phlegm
    • Causes you to wheeze
    • Is paired with a fever
    • Makes it hard for you to breathe
    • Causes you to choke or vomit
    • Causes pain in your chest

    How to Relieve a Nighttime Cough

    Even if you have an occasional cough throughout the day, there are things you can do to make sure you get a good night’s sleep when you lie down. To lessen the chances of coughing at night, or to relieve a nighttime cough, you can:3,5,8

    • Stop smoking
    • Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day
    • Gargle with warm saltwater before you sleep to help thin mucus
    • Inhale steam to moisten the throat and thin mucus
    • Avoid dust, smoke and other irritants that cause coughing
    • Avoid consuming foods and drinks that cause acid reflux
    • Buy your dog, cat or other pet with fur their own bed to sleep in so that their fur doesn’t irritate your airways
    • Prop your head and upper body up with extra pillows to improve your gravitational level
    • Suck on lozenges to help relieve the cough
    • Use products with honey that can alleviate the irritation in your throat and airways
    • Try an over-the-counter medication like Robitussin’s Cough + Chest Congestion DM that relieves a frequent cough and thins mucus from chest congestion

    Robitussin’s over-the-counter products include active ingredients that relieve your cough whether it’s a dry cough or one that contains mucus. These products will not only help relieve your cough throughout your daily activities, but they can also help relieve your cough to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Source Citations:

  1. Cough. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  2. Learn About Cough. American Lung Association. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  3. What causes that terrible nighttime cough? The Ohio State University: Wexner Medical Center. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  4. Post-nasal Drip. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: ENT health. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  5. Treatments for post-nasal drip. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  6. Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  7. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Mayo Clinic. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  8. Chronic Cough. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
  9. Cough Symptoms: When to See a Doctor. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 8/17/21. Referenced text is indicated in source PDF.
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